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Published October 29 2010

Prairie touches pervade F-M Opera’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’

The title characters are still impoverished and lost, but the Fargo-Moorhead Opera has swapped out the Black Forest setting of “Hansel and Gretel” for the vastness of the Dakota prairie set a century ago.

“So Hansel and Gretel’s family lives in a sod house,” says David Hamilton, the Opera’s general director.

The Fargo-Moorhead Opera’s re-imagining of the classic Brothers Grimm tale hits the stage tonight and Sunday at the North Dakota State University Festival Concert Hall.

The show’s music was composed by 19th- and 20th-century German Engelbert Humperdinck (not the pop heartthrob of “After the Lovin’ ” fame), but the FMO will perform a recent English translation of the classic performance.

Along with bringing the classic fairy tale over from the old country, the FMO is also tweaking some of the spiritual beings in the story. The angels who watch over the children in the original version become Scandinavian spirit beings in the FMO’s version. And the Dew Fairy takes on the persona of a Scandinavian grandmother-type.

It’s all intended to bring the opera a little closer to home.

“You know, I think it translates quite well,” says Lois Rhomberg, the Minneapolis-based set designer and co-costume designer for the show. “I just sort of feel like it’s always nice to be able to speak to us around here.”

It’s not the FMO’s first stab at putting a new twist on a classic opera. Hamilton says people seemed to enjoy the twist that they took on “Don Giovanni” in 2008 when they transported the Mozart opera from Spain of generations ago to Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties.

Hamilton says if “Hansel” is also favorably received, they may look at doing other updates amid traditional opera productions.

As set designer, Rhomberg bears much of the burden of bringing the old story into its new visual context.

“It’s a representation of the prairie,” she says. “And of course the thing about the prairie is that it’s so big.”

A theater, of course, inherently limits the scale of the set.

“What I’ve done is make layers, so it’s as if you’re looking through layers, and you can kind of imagine that the layers keep going,” Rhomberg says.

The Plains of the FMO’s “Hansel and Gretel” are fashioned from burlap and cheesecloth.

“We’ve sort of made a soft-sculpture prairie out of different fabrics to include sunflowers and coneflowers and prairie grasses,” she says. “It’s very simple, but I think it’s doing a good job of telling the story.”

Superficial changes notwithstanding, the core of the opera remains true to the Humperdinck creation.

“It is the traditional fairy tale,” Hamilton says, adding that the operatic version is less grim than the traditional Grimm tale.

Hansel and Gretel aren’t eaten, and the maternal figure isn’t a cruel stepmother who urges her husband to ditch the children in the woods.

But, never fear, the witch’s candy-laden gingerbread house has been retained.

“I think we all are intrigued by that, especially around Halloween time,” Hamilton says.

The tastier qualities of the villain’s abode aren’t immediately apparent, however.

“The witch’s house starts out by looking like a little house on the prairie, and then it surprises us by growing into the candy house,” Rhomberg says.

Of course, bringing the witch’s lair to life takes some doing.

“We just had to contract for 200 pounds of dry ice” for the witch’s oven, Hamilton said last week.

The FMO is reaching beyond just music and acting to collaborate with dancers from the Fargo-Moorhead Ballet, adding another layer of creativity to the production.

“That’s a really cool added component,” says Holly Wrensch, a mezzo-soprano playing the part of Hansel, a pre-pubescent boy.

Wrensch, who teaches voice at Concordia College, will be joined by sopranos Jo Ellen Miller and Stella Zambalis as well as Peter Halverson of Concordia.

Despite being well-known as a leading opera for youth, Hamilton says “Hansel and Gretel” is a show for everyone.

The tunes are “whistleable,” he says,

and there’s humor that adults will get that will go over the heads of children.

As Rhomberg sees it, good storytelling works for both adults and children at the same time.

“I think there are things that are delightful to see no matter how old you are, and that’s how you tell a story,” she says. “Something fun to look at that does something fun – I think adults are ready to go there as much as children are.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734